Pro Wrestling Stories

Published on April 29th, 2017 | by Bobby Mathews

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Stealing the Territory

How RON GARVIN & BOB ROOP Led a Wrestlers’ Rebellion

Author: Bobby Mathews  /  Editor: J Zarka

Les Thatcher (left) remained loyal to the Knoxville promotion, despite multiple overtures from Angelo Poffo’s ICW. However, an attempted coup by four veteran wrestlers would doom the promotion.

June 2, 1979

Ronnie Garvin hadn’t shown up to TV. The man with the hands of stone had defeated Alexis Smirnoff the night before to win the top title in Knoxville–the NWA Southeastern heavyweight title. But he was nowhere to be found. Calls to his house went unanswered. He was simply gone.

Even more troubling: Three other headliners were missing. While Garvin was the promotion’s top babyface, Bob Roop wasn’t there, either. Roop, a legitimate tough guy and a former Greco-Roman wrestler for the U.S. Olympic team in 1968, had just been relieved of his booking duties, but he was still one of the top draws in the territory. Bob Orton, Jr., and The Great Malenko were gone, too. The promotion’s owner, Ron Fuller, didn’t panic. Instead, the Knoxville TV taping went ahead as scheduled. The match results from the previous night were ignored, and Smirnoff–Canadian wrestler Michel Lemarche wrestling as ‘the mad Russian’–was still announced as champion of the territory.

The only problem: Garvin still had the Southeastern title belt.


The Plan

A standout Greco-Roman wrestler, Bob Roop was also enough of an outlaw to fit in during the wild territory days of the 1970s.

Roop and Garvin hadn’t been happy in Knoxville for a while, and they weren’t the only ones. Roop says houses were selling out, but the crew’s payoffs weren’t where they should have been. By 1979, Roop had been in the business a little more than 10 years and worked all over the country for various promoters. As a ‘real’ wrestler, he had credibility in the ring and could back his law in the dressing room with his fists if need be. Garvin, a five-foot, nine-inch fireplug with arms, sported a crew cut and threw overhand chops that drew blood and left opponents battered and bruised for real. Orton was a second-generation wrestler who understood how the business worked from nearly the moment he stepped into the ring, and Malenko was a master heel who could shoot as well.

The four wrestlers were top stars in the Knoxville promotion, which ran events in east Tennessee, including in Chattanooga, Johnson City, Kingsport, and southeastern Kentucky. On their days off, they’d hang out in Roop’s apartment, watching TV, drinking beer, and talking about the business.

While none of them were happy, they also weren’t quite sure what to do about it. But the four men–especially Roop–suspected they were being cheated. The money, Roop says, just didn’t add up. Wrestlers paid on a percentage of the house weren’t getting what Roop claims was their agreed-upon share. The former Olympian set out to discover what was really going on. What he found out set the four on a course that would damage Knoxville as a wrestling town for years to come.

One night at a Knoxville card, Roop sneaked out of the dressing room and watched the ticket-takers, who he claims were a mother-daughter team. While the two would take tickets, they would count only about two-thirds of the actual tickets sold. Roop was furious, and says he confronted Fuller about it.

Fuller assured Roop that nothing like that was happening, but Roop didn’t buy it. To this day, he believes Fuller’s reaction was wrong, and wonders why Fuller didn’t at least look into his concerns.

“I went to see (Ron Fuller). I told him what was happening, suspecting he was not only aware of it, but likely the one ordering it done,” Roop wrote in a message on Kayfabe Memories. “My suspicions were justified by his response to my charge of the double ticket selling. He told me he couldn’t believe his ticket people would or could do that, just registered total shock and disbelief, in effect denying it was happening. Well, let me ask you: if the general manager as well as one of the top talents of your company comes to you with these kind of accusations, do you think you are going to deny them out of hand? … NO! You’re going to tell him that you are going to be looking into that accusation, thank him for letting you know about it, that you will get to the bottom of it, etc.

Don’t let the lack of a bodybuilder physique fool you. Roop was a legit shooter, who sometimes accepted open challenges from the crowd at wrestling events for Angelo Poffo’s ICW.

“That he denied that it could be happening and clearly planned on continuing to do the same thing, made him my enemy. He was stealing from me every night, taking money I had given blood, sweat and tears to earn, he wasn’t satisfied that we were doing great business and earning him a fortune, he had to steal off the top of it. That he would lie to my face and deny what I presented to him as known factual evidence to me was to me a personal insult and lost whatever small affection or respect I might have felt for him. That he thought I would take it and be happy because I was making quite a bit of money even being shafted was a reflection as to his opinion of my character and another deeply-felt personal insult. That he would let us run the entire show, give us carte blanche to do what we wished with his territory, then give us the old shaftola? He clearly thought we were all stooges who would just put up with that kind of insult! He was wrong!”

The seed was planted. Unable to trust the man who hired him, Roop’s discontent grew. Eventually, he asked the other wrestlers with whom he was close a fateful question:

“Why don’t we take the territory from him?”

 


Last Best Chance

It wasn’t the first time Roop had thought about usurping a promoter. Even in the territory days of wrestling, when workers still occasionally went into business for themselves in the ring, Roop had a peculiar reputation as an outlaw. He wasn’t interested in playing by the National Wrestling Alliance’s rules. If a promoter didn’t keep his word, or if Roop thought he was being shafted, he felt no loyalty. Despite his all-American look and lineage, Bob Roop had a lot more in common with guys like Ernie Ladd and Bruiser Brody. Wrestling was a business, and Roop was looking out for himself and his crew, not necessarily the promoter.

As a heel booker in Roy Shire’s San Francisco territory two years prior, Roop had popped houses around the loop with a hot feud against a young Kevin Sullivan. Roop’s amateur credentials and condescending swagger were compelling, and a once-lukewarm territory was getting hot again. Sullivan, in contrast to his later days as an evil Taskmaster, was the white-meat babyface against whom Roop pitted himself. Eventually putting Sullivan over and writing himself off TV with an injury angle, Roop donned a mask and returned as the Star Warrior. The feud remained hot, but Shire’s hold in San Francisco was weakening. He was becoming less interested in promoting, so Roop moved in.

He began approaching local TV and spot-show promoters, as well as talking to the boys in the locker room, about potentially stealing the San Francisco territory from Shire. Roop had a couple of things going for him: 1) He knew how to book the territory. Houses had gone up and showed no sign of slowing down while he was running the show; and 2) He was a legitimate wrestler. His credentials as an Olympic wrestler gave his work credibility with fans, potential business partners, and the boys in the dressing room.

Roop always blamed Kurt Von Stieger (pictured above) for ratting him out to San Francisco promoter Roy Shire.

But eventually word about Roop’s rebellion got back to Shire, and the Olympic grappler was fired. Roop blamed wrestler Kurt Von Steiger for ratting him out. Von Steiger was at the end of his career, having re-teamed with his kayfabe brother, Karl Von Steiger, and running roughshod through teams in the Bay Area, notably feuding with the team of Moondog Mayne and Ray “the Crippler” Stevens. At the end of his time in Shires’ promotion, Von Steiger retired, later training wrestlers like Bobby Jaggers and Afa Anao’i of the Wild Samoans.

But Roop wasn’t done in the business, despite trying to take over the San Francisco territory. He still had a good reputation with several promoters. When he was hot, he could draw money–and a wrestler who could draw money was never really blackballed. Roop went into the Knoxville territory with a string of box office successes behind him in Florida, Georgia, and San Francisco. Championship Wrestling from Florida promoter Eddie Graham loved Roop. He loved his toughness and his strength and his unquestionable in-ring ability. Not only was Roop a really tough wrestler, he was also a worker–a guy who could make himself and other wrestlers look good. He could also put butts in seats.

And for a while, things looked good in Tennessee. Houses were up. The travel wasn’t bad when compared with territories like Leroy McGuirk’s Tri-States promotion (later Mid-South and UWF) that ran all over Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi, or Jerry Jarrett’s Memphis promotion, which ran loops every week into Kentucky, Indiana, and Arkansas, too. Knoxville had long been known as a good wrestling town, and while the boys weren’t going to get rich, they could make money and have an easier time on the road. The only other real draw in the area was the University of Tennessee football program, and by the late 1970s, the Volunteers weren’t a threat to anyone on the gridiron or at the box office.

Up until 1974, promoter John Cazana had run the office in Knoxville, using talent from Nick Gulas’s Mid-America promotion in Nashville. When Cazana decided to sell his territory, Ron Fuller stepped in and brought his own talent aboard. Fuller, the self-described Tennessee Stud, was part of the Gulas-Welch-Fuller-Fields family of wrestlers and promoters who dominated much of Southern wrestling for years. By the time he bought out Cazana, Fuller was a seasoned professional, having had runs on top in Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee. As a second-generation wrestler, he knew how to make money and keep a territory running smoothly, and as a member in good standing of the NWA, he also ascended to one of the governing body’s vice-presidential slots. Fuller watched his money carefully, but he didn’t have the same tightwad reputation with funds as some promoters, like Angelo Poffo.

So where were the payoffs? The checks from the office weren’t increasing along with the gate receipts, and they should have been. So as the payoffs in Knoxville continued to be stagnant, Roop was able to gather support. The Great Malenko was no stranger to running opposition shows. He’d done so in Florida, teaming with Don Curtis to form Suncoast Championship Wrestling, which reached the panhandle of Florida and into southeast Alabama, where Gulf Coast Championship Wrestling made its home at the time.

The Great Malenko, also known as ‘Professor’ Boris Malenko, was a top heel in the Southern territories for much of his career. He also had experience running opposition, or ‘outlaw’ shows.

Malenko had a long and successful history in the wrestling business. After beginning his career on the East Coast, he really made a name for himself in Tampa, Florida. He worked with Big Time Wrestling in Texas (the precursor to World Class) as early as 1957, holding the Texas heavyweight title, as well as returning to the area to win the NWA American championship in 1970 and headlining a show in the Houston Astrodome against Wahoo McDaniel that set attendance records at the time. Having Malenko in a prominent position on the card meant money, and promoters knew it.

Malenko and Roop had known one another since 1972, when they teamed up in Graham’s Florida promotion to win the territory’s tag team titles from Bearcat Wright and “the King” Bobby Shane. Malenko had been a headliner in Knoxville, holding the territory’s top title as well as the Southeastern TV title. Though short in stature, Malenko used his legitimate shooter’s background as well as an over-the-top Russian gimmick to maintain his role as one of the top heels in the company. Since Roop and Malenko had known one another previously and teamed together, there was already a bond of trust between the two.

Bob Orton, Jr. was well-liked by the majority of the locker room, praised highly for his ability inside the ring. But Orton–who would go on to more fame in the WWE as ‘Ace,’ the bodyguard for “Rowdy” Roddy Piper–had a severe setback: he stuttered. Despite the speech impediment, Orton’s in-ring work as a heel was top notch. He drove the fans in Knoxville into a rage. As the son of Bob Orton, Sr., he’d turned professional back in 1972 after dropping out of college and working under a hood as “Young Mr. Wrestling” or “The Invader,” and often teaming with his father. Orton went along with his friends.

Ron Garvin was a different matter. Most longtime fans remember him as “Hands of Stone” on WTBS, or “Rugged” Ronnie Garvin in WWE. He used a knockout punch to defeat his opponents on World Championship Wrestling on WTBS, and won the NWA world title from “Nature Boy” Ric Flair in 1987. But by 1979, Garvin had already been wrestling around the southern territories for 17 years, first under his real name–Roger Barnes–and then as part of a tag team with his ‘brother’ Terry Garvin. It’s almost impossible to overstate how much Garvin resonated with the fans in eastern Tennessee at the time, but before he became “Hands of Stone,” Garvin was simply “Mr. Knoxville.”

It was that type of popularity that led Fuller to book Garvin as the territory’s champion several times, and to keep him around the main event. When he wasn’t wrestling singles, Garvin had runs with the Southeastern tag team titles, teaming with Welsh standout Tony Charles and Orton. Smirnoff and Garvin had good chemistry in the ring together, and Knoxville fans never knew that two Canadians were, in fact, putting on the show. Garvin would end up holding the Knoxville version of the Southeastern title on five different occasions.

But it was that final time that was most memorable. Garvin walked away from the promotion with the title belt, and kept it, despite Fuller’s attempts to get the championship back.


The Judas Goat

In the midst of all of their plotting, Roop and his cohorts never gave a second thought to “Dirty” Dick Slater, who was staying with Roop and convalescing from a gunshot wound suffered at the hands of Wahoo McDaniel. Slater and Andre the Giant were bystanders during an altercation between McDaniel and a fan, with the fan allegedly pulling a knife on the wrestler. McDaniel then retrieved a gun from his car and pistol-whipped the fan. The gun went off, and Slater was shot in the knee. According to wrestling lore, Slater kayfabed the incident to the police, telling them that he’d been shot by a sniper. No charges against McDaniel were ever filed for the incident.

Dick Slater received 30 pieces of silver–in other words, the Knoxville booking job–for his betrayal of Bob Roop, Ronnie Garvin, Boris Malenko, and Bob Orton, Jr.

Roop and Slater were connected from their Florida days. Slater grew up with Eddie Graham’s son, Mike, competing on the Robinson High School wrestling team with the younger Graham and turning pro in Tampa. Roop and Slater became friends–Slater breaking into the pro circuit the same year Roop represented the U.S. at the Olympics. So with Slater recovering from a gunshot wound and Roop with aspirations of running the territory, it seemed a natural fit to bring in Slater. Roop says he even got an $800 a week guarantee from Fuller to pay Slater while he was injured. For reference, $800 in 1979 is approximately equal to $2,853 in 2017. Roop also claims he loaned Slater money, and that Slater wouldn’t pay the loan back in full.

Slater had a different story when interviewed for MidAtlanticWrestling.net.

“I went to Japan … and got a phone call from Bob Roop. He wanted to start his own business in Knoxville, Tennessee,” Slater said. “He wanted to know if I wanted to go with him, and I said, ‘No, I was fine just where I was at.’ I was working for Ron Fuller … I went in there to work for Ron Fuller. I was traveling in and out of there, going to Japan back and forth, and with Jim Barnett … I wasn’t about to jeopardize my wrestling career to work for Bob Roop. So, I mean, he can say all he wants to say, but Bob Roop … where’s he at now?”

So Slater had ambitions of his own, and they didn’t include playing the same game as Roop and his friends. A tough guy in his own right, who once knocked out NFL defensive lineman John Matuszak during a bar fight in Tampa, Slater might have been the one wrestler in the locker room who could handle Roop–or at least hold his own–if things got physical. Slater sat quietly on the couch in Roop’s living room and let his leg heal for three weeks.

And while he healed, he listened to the plan–and reported back to Eddie Graham, who relayed the takeover plans to Fuller.

“Our plans were moving along, we had included Crusher Blackwell as well as Roger Smith, who was working under a hood in an identity I can’t remember, when one day I got a call from RF asking me to come to his apartment for a confab. I complied, walked in and had him tell me that he had been called an hour earlier by Eddie Graham with definite proof that I was planning a hostile takeover,” Roop wrote. “Man oh man, what a smack in the chops! I had to make an instant decision and really had no choice but to deny it outright, because admitting to it would not only mean instant dismissal but also implicate my colleagues in the cabal and allow no time for damage control/other options.

“It was very hard. Even though aware I was lying to a man deserving of very little respect who indeed had forced my hand by his theft and disrespect, it was still hard to do so. Here’s why. Of course, like everyone else I was guilty of the social white lies which are usually made out of kindness or desire not to hurt someone’s feelings. However, when pressed for truth in a serious matter, the person who lies, no matter what the motive, is weak, is certainly weaker than the person pressing him, isn’t he? How do you think I felt having to be weak and take the liar’s way out with RF, allowing this person of little character to actually and truly, if for this incident alone, achieve moral superiority over me? Like two cents waiting for change!”

Knowing that things were not going his way, Roop negotiated with his boss.

“As a stopgap, I offered up the booking job,” he stated. “Still denying what I’m sure (Fuller) and I both knew to be the truth, I attempted to stay employed long enough to be of some influence toward furthering our plans or perhaps take the gaff myself and move on. I had been found out in San Francisco when another cowardly stooge offered a partnership in our possible new company told Roy Shire of similar plans to take over his territory–I was immediately let go with no repercussions to the other members of my group. I knew that was also an option in Knoxville, (Fuller) would not want to lose all the talent that was making him tens of thousands of dollars every week.

Eventually, Roop also said he’d work out the last few dates as well as giving up the booker’s job.

Despite being made aware of Bob Roop’s treachery, Ron Fuller (above, wearing the Southern heavyweight title belt) kept the Olympic wrestler around to work out a two-week notice.

“In Knoxville, with that former experience in mind and to stall for time, in addition to giving up the book I had also given him my two-week notice, justifying it by pointing out untruthfully that the false accusations against me had, truthfully in this case, soured our relationship to the point of making it uncomfortable for me to even be around him,” Roop wrote. “I’m sure that he planned on having me leave and merely going on as before while keeping a much closer eye on things … This meeting at his apartment might have been on Wednesday or Thursday, but on Friday night at the show in Knoxville, guess who walks into the dressing room with my booking ledger under his arm? Dick Slater. Yeah, ol’ Dick, a good name for him, couldn’t take the heat of being his own man, needed to stay in bondage and keep getting the pat on the back with one hand while the other hand stole his wallet, from the promoters.”

Just like in San Francisco when Von Steiger betrayed Roop’s plans to the promoter, the jig was up. But Fuller had a need for good talent, especially at that time. The Gulas-Fuller-Welch-Fields family was expanding its wrestling holdings at a rapid rate at this point, having purchased World Championship Wrestling (Australia version) from Jim Barnett and sending Tennessee talent across the Pacific for international tours there. Additionally, Lee Fields was looking to sell Gulf Coast Championship Wrestling and devote his time to promoting stock car racing. Fuller purchased the territory from Fields, and suddenly Southeastern had two separate, but linked, territories. The promotion shared some talent and story lines, but not all.

Maybe it was just too much to take on. Maybe Fuller’s attention lapsed. It would be fascinating, at this late date, to find out why Fuller went ahead with plans to put the Southeastern title on Ron Garvin. Fuller did not reply to a message on Facebook seeking comment for this article.

Regardless, Garvin had the title when he left the Knoxville show on June 1, pinning Smirnoff clean. It was the break Roop had been waiting for. He, Orton, Malenko, and Garvin all walked out of the promotion with no notice. They formed All-Star Wrestling and ran opposition to Fuller’s Southeastern. They expected heat from the Fuller family, and they got it. They expected to have to fight for control of a great wrestling town.

But they didn’t expect a Tennessee legend to walk out with them.


The Wright Stuff

Ron Wright was a legend in Tennessee. Born in Rogersville and basing nearly his entire career in the Volunteer state, Wright owned part of the Tri-Cities territory, which would eventually become part of Southeastern-Knoxville. For 30 years, Wright was a heel who drew tremendous heat for his ultra-violent and physical matches, as well as his promo style, which was based on traveling tent evangelists. By 1979, Wright had retired from in-ring competition, but the people of east Tennessee could still see the “Number One Hillbilly” on television every week, leading a group of heels to ever more dastardly deeds. Wright would occasionally pull out a razor-sharp chisel from where he’d secreted it on his person and hit his opponents with it, drawing blood. A young Kevin Sullivan received 13 stitches from a gash with the chisel during a match between himself, Robert Fuller and Ron and his real-life brother, Don Wright.

Wright must have been compelling in the ring and on the microphone, because he certainly didn’t get over on his looks.

Wright was still making money in Southeastern, but he followed Roop and company out the door when they started All-Star Wrestling to run opposition to Fuller. No one is sure why, and at this date, it’s too late to ask Wright. He passed away in April of 2015. Regardless, when Wright appeared on All-Star Wrestling, it lent the promotion a further air of local legitimacy. In the Deep South, fans could tell that ASW’s headliners “ain’t from around here.” But with Wright along for the ride, the locals had someone who looked and sounded like them. And more importantly, Wright was a man they could hate.

Wright’s heat in the late 1970s was such that he was shot at by fans no fewer than three times, and one mark got close enough to gash him with a straight razor one night. Wright required 160 stitches to close the cuts. Fans burned his private airplane and slashed his car tires. An estimated five fans had heart attacks due to Wright’s antics during his career.

But for a man who drew so much heat from fans, Ron Wright doesn’t seem to have drawn much heat from the Fuller family for his defection. He’d show up later, after the Knoxville promotions had imploded, in Continental in Alabama, as well as Fuller’s USA Wrestling promotion in 1988, trying to rebuild Tennessee wrestling. Wright would eventually retire from the sport in 1995, finally calling it quits when Jim Cornette’s Smoky Mountain Wrestling folded.

“…Yeah, see I was the big card there for years and years, so when they bought John Cazana out, it was Roy Welch and Buddy Fuller. Buddy Fuller Welch was his real name, he was Roy Welch’s son,” Wright told an interviewer with Kayfabe Memories. “Well, Ron came in and he was just out of college, and they finally came up with enough money and he sold out to them. They knew they had to have me, I owned everything up this way from Morristown, including Kentucky and Southwest Virginia. So I made a deal with them that I’d sell to them and we’d promote it out of Channel 10 in Knoxville, that was the station we were on at the time. And I would give them 49 percent interest in all this to operate it over my TV. And after they got their foot in the door and got some licenses in their name they figured they didn’t need me anymore, so they wouldn’t pay me.”

And that’s when Wright’s story diverges from Roop’s. In Wright’s version, the idea to run opposition began with him.

“So that was when I took all the main event wrestlers they had, Ronnie Garvin, Boris Malenko, Bob Roop, Bob Orton Jr. and put them under contract to work for me,” he said. “We went off and left them. Well, they had the TV and we had the Kingsport TV and it didn’t go out far, so we really suffered at trying to get stuff a-going. There were a few other problems with the wrestlers, and that was when we shut down.  I lost $53,000.  We promoted for, what was it, a year?”

But no matter whose idea it was, Wright was an important cog in the wheel of All-Star Wrestling. Garvin would appear on All-Star television with the Southeastern title belt, much to the consternation of Fuller. In fact, Garvin claims that Fuller went to court to get the championship belt back from him after the outlaw promotion popped up.

Ron Garvin would keep the Southeastern title and walk out of the promotion as champion. More than 30 years later, WWE and CM Punk would do a similar angle, where Punk left the promotion with the title belt. The difference is that Garvin’s walkout was a shoot.

In a September 2005 eBay auction, Garvin put the Southeastern title up for grabs to the highest bidder, and recounted how Fuller tried to get the belt back by legal means.

“I took the title from Alexis Smirnoff on June 1, 1979. When we broke away from Ron and started wrestling opposition as the International Wrestling Alliance, I kept wrestling as the champion,” Garvin wrote, explaining the lineage of the title belt. “Ron Fuller took me to court for the belt. He told the judge that it was his personal property and produced the bill of sale showing that he had bought it from John Cazana. If I remember correctly, he paid $475 for it … I had a good attorney and we had prepared good questions. When I took the stand, my attorney asked me, “If somebody wins a title, what are the ways they can lose it?”

Garvin says he replied:

“I was always told that when I won the belt, it would be my property until somebody beat me for it … The only other way I could lose the belt was if I refused to defend it against a legitimate challenger, and I never refused to defend it.”

Garvin claims the judge threw the matter out of court, and suggested that Fuller and Garvin wrestle for the title.

“The only way Ron could have won that case was to expose the business and admit that the belt was given to us through prearranged matches,” Garvin wrote. “In those days, you didn’t do that, so Ron was between a rock and a hard place.”

However, I was unable to find a record of a civil suit between Fuller and Garvin during this time frame. Garvin eventually sold the belt to an anonymous collector for more than $2,500 in October 2005.

Even though Garvin still defended the title in the new outlaw promotion, Knoxville was about to be shaken by some Madness.


Macho Libre

With Southeastern losing four of its top in-ring competitors and the top manager in the area, Knoxville was ripe for the picking. The departing wrestlers formed the IWA–International Wrestling Association–and ran TV out of Kingsport as All-Star Wrestling. While the cards were good, they weren’t great. And soon the wrestlers were having trouble with one another.

And then the Poffos came to town.

Randy Savage and Lanny Poffo were the biggest stars in ICW, but a money deal with the headliners in All-Star Wrestling brought new blood into the company.

Angelo Poffo was a longtime wrestler whose ICW feuded openly with Memphis, working spot shows in Kentucky and running possibly the cheapest looking TV show of the 1970s (and that’s saying something). But Poffo had two things going for him: his sons Randy and Lanny. Randy Poffo was athletic, charismatic, and good on the microphone. Using the name ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage, he headlined ICW for years while Lanny–who was actually the better athlete of the two–seemed content to play second fiddle. And now with Southeastern weakened and All-Star Wrestling only a blip on the map, the Poffos had a chance to really get a foothold in Tennessee.

ICW wasn’t an instant success in Knoxville, but it stayed around long enough to see All-Star Wrestling implode. Once it did, Angelo Poffo did something he rarely did: He opened his wallet to get Malenko, Orton, Garvin, and Roop onto his shows, offering each of them a small ownership stake in ICW. Wright didn’t go with the four. He was a victim of a debilitating car accident that saw him leave the business for several years before resurfacing in Alabama. Malenko left soon afterward to go back to Florida, where he retired and opened a wrestling school.

But by then ICW was a real threat, with Poffo’s ruthlessness and Savage’s charisma on top, as well as the four top draws in the territory. The NWA responded in the only way it knew how: by essentially dropping the promotional equivalent of an atomic bomb on Knoxville. Every promoter in the South seemed to be running cards in the city.

“All the territories around us began sending in talent to work big shows on the same nights we did,” Roop wrote. “Barnett from Atlanta, Crockett from Charlotte, perhaps someone from one of the Tennessee territories, and the promoter who started me, Eddie Graham from Florida.”

Barnett ran shows in Knoxville for a short time, but by October of 1980, Jim Crockett Jr. had taken over the territory, along with ownership stakes by Blackjack Mulligan and Ric Flair. The Crockett-Mulligan-Flair territory ran for about a year in 1981 until it petered out. That was essentially the end of bigtime wrestling in Knoxville until Fuller tried to return in the late 1980s with USA Wrestling. That promotion, too, failed.

Ron Garvin alleges that Ron Fuller paid $475 for this title belt in 1974. He may have overpaid. By $450 or so…

Questions remain. Was Fuller skimming on the box office take? Roop believes so, as did Wright. But neither man was able to prove it. The Gulas-Fuller-Welch-Fields family promoted wrestling for generations, and they knew how to make (and keep) money. Wrestler and manager Gary Hart infamously hated the Fullers because of what he saw as their unfaithful business dealings. But other wrestlers have found the Fullers to be completely above-board and true to their word in their business dealings. So was Ron Fuller at fault? Or was this a case of an opportunistic wrestler (or group of wrestlers) looking for an opportunity to make more money?

It’s impossible to know for sure. Maybe the best perspective comes from longtime wrestler and Southeastern announcer Les Thatcher, who had this to say:

“Did Ron skim? I truthfully do not know the honest answer, but would guess he may have as most promoters at that time having first count on the tickets would take some off the top (he who is without sin raise your hand),” Thatcher responded to a fan who asked about the incident. “I can remember working several places around the country that the payoff didn’t match what the house appeared to be; but that was the business of that era. It wasn’t like he would have been the inventor of that type of thing. This I do know because I suggested it. He took a small percentage from each house and used it at Christmas time to give the talent a holiday bonus. Don’t remember if it happened every year he ran or the exact amount but I’m sure he did the first couple … I stayed after the split but a couple of times I was offered the TV deal with the Poffo group but felt a loyalty to SEW since I had been given the creative freedom to develop a television show that became a sort of yardstick to measure wrestling TV by as I was able to do some things new for our industry at the time which are now standard across the board. No matter what you hear otherwise about who was best at what during that time, we smoked them as far as quality TV production went, period … In truth, the whole war thing was totally stupid as all it was able to do was kill the territory for both promotions. Nobody won. I also was there after Ron sold to Jim Barnett and then went to Mobile for Ron a while and returned to K-Town to produce and host the TV for the Crockett/Flair/Mulligan promotion when they bought it from Barnett, then returned for Cornette when he opened.”

The only thing that we know for certain is that Knoxville was once a wrestling town, and part of a territory so rich that men were willing to jeopardize their careers for it, a prize jewel in the crown of the Smoky Mountains. And when Roop, Malenko, Orton, and Garvin walked out of the territory, it was a death knell for wrestling in that territory for years to come.

Reach Bobby Mathews on Twitter: @bob_the_writer_


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Stealing the Territory: How RON GARVIN and BOB ROOP Led a Rebellion

by Bobby Mathews time to read: 24 min
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